Christian Schönbein Biography (1799-1868)


Schönbein was a chemist who is best known for his discovery and researchon ozone (O3).

Schönbein's family was financially unable to continue his formal education past the age of fourteen, so he was apprenticed to a chemical and pharmaceutical company in Boeblingen. For the next seven years, Schöenbein worked at the plant and studied chemistry, philosophy, mathematics and several languages in his spare time. In 1820 he finished his apprenticeship and moved toAugsburg where, for a short time, he translated scientific papers from French to German. He soon found a position with another chemical company where heremained for three years.

In 1823, Schönbein took a post under Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) teaching chemistry, physics, and mineralogy. After three years with Froebel, Schönbein moved to England to teach mathematics and natural history. He stayed in England only one year, then moved again in 1827, this time to France. There he was awarded an honorary Ph.D. and appointed a professor of physics andchemistry at the University of Basel. It was during these years that Schönbein conducted his most significant research.

Schönbein began his studies by exploring the passivity of iron. Althoughhe reached several interesting conclusions, the methods he used to conduct his studies were qualitative and relied heavily on analogies rather than empirical data. Thus, most of his research into passive iron has since been disproved. Schönbein's major accomplishment came almost coincidentally. Because his laboratory at Basel was poorly ventilated, he was able to notice an unusual odor that was produced during the electrolytic decomposition of water. He observed that this odor was similar to the smell produced around large electrical apparatus machines. He theorized that in both cases this smell was dueto a new type of gas. This same gas, he discovered, was also produced when phosphorus oxidized. He also discovered the gas was positively charged and that it resembled chlorine and bromine in its chemical properties. Schönbein named the gas ozone (from the Greek ozon, meaning "odor") because ofits peculiar smell.

Another of Schönbein's major discoveries was also a fortunate accident.He discovered guncotton while experimenting with nitric and sulfuric acids inhis kitchen. He spilled some acid and, not wanting his wife to know that hehad been using the kitchen as a laboratory, quickly cleaned the liquid up with an apron and hung it on the stove to dry. Much to Schönbein's surprise, once the apron dried, it burst into flames. He then realized that the nitric acid had reacted with the cellulose in the cotton apron to form nitrocellulose. Because the guncotton, as Schönbein named it, would burn without creating a great deal of smoke, it briefly flourished as a replacement for black gunpowder. Schönbein died in 1868.

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